Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Written by: Todd Komarnicki based on the book by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow.
Starring: Tom Hanks (Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger), Aaron Eckhart (Jeff Skiles), Laura Linney (Lorraine Sullenberger), Mike O'Malley (Charles Porter), Anna Gunn (Elizabeth Davis), Valerie Mahaffey (Diane Higgins), Delphi Harrington (Lucille Palmer), Jamey Sheridan (Ben Edwards), Holt McCallany (Mike Cleary).
I remember when American Sniper came out, I saw a round table discussion on the film on the late, great Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, where one of the commenters said that Eastwood had made his career making films that are black and white morally – an assumption that I gather he made after watching zero Clint Eastwood films, because the best films he has made as a director all exist in the moral grey zone. Eastwood’s view of heroism is quite complex in films like The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Unforgiven (1992), his twin Iwo Jiwa films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jim (both 2006) – and yes, even American Sniper (2014) itself – among other. He has also presented some more simplistic views over the years – mostly in genre films – but Eastwood is at his best when the contradiction inherent in violence and heroism – that violence can be necessary, but it always comes at a cost. His latest film, Sully, unfortunately doesn’t make a whole lot of room for that moral grey area that marks Eastwood’s best films. It stars Tom Hanks as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the airline pilot who lost both engines right after takeoff, and landed his plane – with 155 people on board – on the Hudson River – and miraculously, everyone survived. Sully became an instant national hero – even if there were some who questioned his decisions that day. Because the whole water landing took place over a mere 208 seconds (the film says that number A LOT), Eastwood has to find a way to stretch that into a feature film – a tight one, even by Eastwood’s standards, which runs just over 90 minutes long. He does it by showing those 208 seconds multiple times, from multiple view points, during the course of the movie – and turning much of the film into a kind of courtroom drama – where Sully argues for the “human factor” to bureaucrats who tout their technology. Guess who wins?
However, while I don’t think Sully is near Eastwood’s best work, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a rock solid movie on its own terms. It starts with Hanks’ performance as Sully – which fits nicely into his recent run of performances in films like Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies, as men who will stand up for what they believe in, no matter what anyone else says. I think Hanks is often underrated as an actor, simply because he makes performances like the ones delivered in those movies look so effortless – like he isn’t even trying. But most actors couldn’t deliver those performances no matter how hard they tried, and Hanks fills them with quiet, subtle moments. It’s true that films like Greengrass, Spielberg and now Eastwood cast Hanks as a kind of shorthand – Hanks is now essentially America’s Dad, so we’re on his side from the get go. But Hanks shades the performance nicely – while the film doesn’t doubt Sully’s heroism for a second, Hanks allows doubt to seep into his screen version of Sully – which, of course, makes him all the more heroic – reluctant heroes are much more likable after all. None of the other performances really register that much – although Aaron Eckhart does have a killer mustache, and a couple of good one-liners. This is Hanks’ show – at least when it isn’t Eastwood’s.
As a filmmaker, Eastwood has always been a classicist – and he normally strips away all the fat in his film – all those elements that aren’t strictly necessary. He doesn’t quite do that in Sully – a few flashbacks to Sully’s younger days adds absolutely nothing to the movie, and I could have done with fewer phone to his distraught wife (although that could be because his wife is played by the great Laura Linney, who is given nothing to do but cry, and it’s frustrating to an actress of her talent wasted like that) – then again, the film still barely gets above 90 minutes, so he probably needed that padding. Eastwood is at his best when recreating those fateful 208 seconds though – and a few horrible moments when Sully thinks about what could have happened had he messed up (these moments will strike many as exploitive – as it literally depicts a plane crashing into New York City, calling to mind 9/11 specifically – then again, pretty much every blockbuster now using 9/11 inspired imagery – and that’s for movies about men in capes punching each other, so perhaps Sully can be cut some slack). I’ve always liked the way Eastwood shoots interiors as well – and there are some highlights here as well (the darkened bar, Sully lost in thought looking at the window, etc.). Finally, I did appreciate how the films climatic “courtroom” scenes pretty much ignored the typical theatrics of those moments – preferring something much quieter, and realistic.
Sully is far from a perfect movie. Yes, it is too simplistic a view of heroism for Eastwood – who I suspect, felt a great kinship with Sully (the Eastwood film that Sully actually reminded me of is one he didn’t direct, but starred in – Trouble with the Curve, win which he played an aging baseball scout, whose eyesight is going, but he still knows more than those crazy kids with their stats and computers – or as Eastwood recently called them, the “Pussy Generation” – good ol’ Clint). The film also has some lines that are way too on the nose “No one dies today”, “It’s been a long time since New York had good news to celebrate – especially involving a plane”). Still, what Sully does it does well. It’s a solid effort from Eastwood – and more than solid from Hanks. Both have done better – but Sully’s still rock solid.